Ira Glass explains why the process of making movies is the worst of all the storytelling mediums.
If the overall theme of SXSW 2016 was one of convergence, perhaps no individual was more representative of that theme than film producer, radio host, podcast producer, entrepreneur, and overall editor extraordinaire Ira Glass. At SXSW, we spoke to Ira about his role as a producer on the Mike Birbiglia SXSW premiere Don't Think Twice, but he was also attending the festival in another capacity: as a featured panelist. His conversation with LA Times reporter Mark Olson covered his "other job" as producer and host of the radio show This American Life, as well as the editorial advisor of the podcast smash success Serial. But to Glass, it's all the same thing: he likens his role on film and radio to an "editor" regardless of the medium (though he finds movies to be a "horrible process").
You can watch the full panel from SXSW below, or read on for the takeaways from attending in-person.
"Doing any kind of creative work is so frustrating and dispiriting… everything you make is trying to be mediocre and it’s only through an act of will that you prop up every part of it so it gets to be good."
How Mike Birbiglia developed his abilities as a filmmaker
"Mike is the most shameless person I’ve ever known about asking for advice from more experienced people," Glass said. "He had Michael Weber, who did The Spectacular Now, and Phil Lord, who did The Lego Movie, give him script notes. He would just show it to anybody. We sat around his dumpy living room in Brooklyn and his actor friends would be there and everybody would do these readings and we would talk about what was and wasn't working. We did so many readings. Mike develops material like an improv comedian, doing it over and over and over again. There was this character actor who was killing it and I was like, 'Who is this guy?' And Mike was like, 'Ira, have you met Frank Oz?' And I was like, 'Wait, Yoda is at your apartment?' And he takes their advice. People gave him really good notes."
Why make a movie right now, with all the money that’s in TV and podcasting?
"I know!" Glass said. "Right? Why make a movie? It takes a year. It's such a horrible process, and the chances of anyone seeing it, of it being any good.... It's crazy. It's so wrongheaded. [But Mike] wants to make movies. He's into movies. I was like, 'Do this one by yourself.' And he kept showing me scripts, and I was like, 'You should change this part here, move this part to there....' He totally played me.
How Glass gave feedback as a creative producer
"[In Mike's early drafts] the characters didn't conflict," Glass explained. "He didn't push it to the crisis point. You couldn't tell it was about coping with failure. [Mike] hadn't figured out what the movie was. I said, 'I'm supportive of you as your friend, but I just don't think it's a movie.' And then he said, 'It's The Big Chill, about failure.' And then I was like, 'Then write that movie.' And then he did. And a lot was different [after that]."
"Why make a movie? It takes a year. It's such a horrible process, and the chances of anyone seeing it, of it being any good.... It's crazy. It's so wrongheaded."
"I gave him notes on the script, and I sat in the editing room, which was an incredibly intensive process. We realized things didn't work; we changed the tone of the movie; we killed a subplot; we invented new scenes; we did two days of reshoots.... Basically I functioned as an editor. On the radio show, I'm an editor. Hearing drafts of stories and giving notes is the biggest part of my job. And that's what I did for [Mike]."
Movie editing is the same as radio editing
"They’re more similar than they seem," said Glass. "Sometimes you’re marching people through a plot and it’s like, 'Oh, wait a second, I didn’t establish this person well enough, so it doesn’t have any feeling down the road…' It’s very similar. And the part that’s amazing about fiction film is you can just make up the facts! As a reporter you’re always like, '"I really wish I had this quote so I can establish that they feel that way…' and they don’t feel that way! Or they [do] feel that way, and they can’t say it. That’s the bane of my existence. Whereas in fiction you’re like, 'If they’re going to break up, where is the very best place for them to do this?' It’s crazy! It’s a nice vacation from my day job. We can just make up shit."
Fiction is structured similarly to non-fiction
"For me, they function the same," Glass said. "You need to get something in motion and pull people in. You need someone [the audience] can relate to. You need stakes. You need something that’s surprising. You need to be documenting something that people haven’t been documenting. And the structure is so similar. The radio show is built around plot. Plot just pulls you in more. Plot is just like 'this thing happened that led to this next thing.' That’s the thing about stories — they’re stupid. The structure is so simple and then you can attach all of these other things. Any feeling you want to have happen has to happen in the structure of action."
"It took us 4 years to get the point where a million people were hearing [This American Life] on the radio. With Serial, it took us 4 weeks."
How Serial took inspiration from TV
"For Serial, [Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, the podcast's producers ] asked, 'What’s the biggest thing in culture?" Glass remembers. "It’s TV, these episodes you can’t turn off…. Can you do that in audio reporting? We had a whole other idea we were considering, and then we went on a staff retreat, and Sara and Julia said they didn't want to do that idea, so we did Serial [instead]. Our business model was if we could get 300,000 downloads, we could make it. And each episode of Serial [now] has had 10.7 million downloads. We were lucky because the technology changed the month Serial came out. And in fall 2014, Apple installed a Podcast app, and suddenly hundreds of millions of people had an app that lists popular podcasts and you just press a button. [Before the app] Julia was trying to put Stitcher on her relative’s phones and she couldn’t get it to work. At that point, all big podcasts numbers went up. Everybody got this bounce partly off of the technology changing. We were just lucky. Serial became its own thing in a way that nobody thought could happen.... It took us 4 years to get the point where a million people were hearing [This American Life] on the radio. With Serial, it took us 4 weeks."
How podcasting fits in with the future of journalism
"The podcasting [business] is a bubble," said Glass. "It’s amazing! It’s a bubble, and we’re going to ride it. The podcast ads bring in more money than the radio ads. The CPMs [cost per thousand impressions] are $50-$60. In print journalism, they’re all buying each other and yelling at each other. Local TV news — any city you’re in — is horrible. My theory is that old people cannot look on the internet for the weather and they have to turn on the TV. I have no facts to back that up. But for really serious journalism, people are having trouble surviving. And then in podcasting, we have all this money and can do things like stage a musical with Lin-Manuel Miranda or send reporters into a school that had several shootings."
"We’re a boutique. We used to be able to do one investigative story a year. Now we’re getting something on the air every month that took 4-6 months to put together, like a serious piece of journalism. I don’t take it for granted because we were broke for so long. Will the bubble burst? Yes. Of course. When VR headsets come in, are we going to be listening to audio?"
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.